Ecuador 2013: A Short Visit to the Galápagos Islands

At last, after three weeks in Ecuador, I am home. I’ve actually been home for a week, but that week has been a whirlwind, and I’m only now finding time to write about the last half of my trip.

Put simply: The Galápagos Islands are amazing.

The Galápagos are filled with raw, natural beauty.

Most folks are familiar with the role this archipelago played in the history of science. As a naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle, the 26-year-old Charles Darwin spent several weeks surveying the flora and fauna of the Galápagos in 1835. His experiences there — and in South America an Australia — planted the seeds that grew into his theory of natural selection.

More than 25 years ago (!!!), I studied Darwin’s On the Origin of Species during my freshman year of college. Because of this, I thought I knew what to expect from the Galápagos. I was wrong.

“Are you my mother?

The Galápagos Islands are an archipelago of volcanic islands some 620 miles off the coast of Ecuador. They’re a chain of small land masses still in the process of creation, floating on the “conveyer belt” of the Earth’s crust. The youngest islands are still being molded by occasional volcanic eruptions. The older islands, however, have had millions of years to mature. They sport lush ecosystems filled with fascinating plants and animals.

There’s lots to see on the Galápagos…

Most Galápagos tours are land-based. You fly to one of the handful of small towns and take day trips to nearby points of interest. I chose a boat-based trip through G Adventures, and I’m glad I did. My six-day tour included three nights aboard ship and visits to five of the thirteen major islands. It wasn’t enough. I plan to return to see everything at some point in the not-too-distant future.

From our yacht, we took dinghies to the shore…

…where landfall was easier for some than others.

You have to be willing to get your feet wet on the Galápagos.

Some of my group of fourteen were disappointed by the land excursions because so much what we saw was similar from island to island. We saw iguanas (red here, green there, black everywhere), boobies (blue-footed here, red-footed there), frigate birds (so fun to watch!), gulls, owls, and — of course — sea lions. The sea lions rule the Galápagos. There are colonies of them on every island.

Everywhere you go, there are sea lions.

I, however, enjoyed the animal life. The diversity isn’t great because the islands are isolated. That’s kind of the point. And it was interesting to see that natural selection favored blue-footed boobies and red-skinned iguanas on one island while preferring red-footed boobies and green-skinned islands on others.

Guarding a nestling…

We spotted an owl on one island, which is rumored to be rare…

Plus, the Galápagos wildlife offers one huge advantage over any other animals I’ve ever seen: The creatures don’t care about humans. As in, they completely ignore us. Except for the bull sea lions, who will charge anything that enters their territory, the birds and the reptiles and the sea lions are perfectly content to come right up to visitors. If you’re not careful, there’s a real risk of trampling something. We were constantly dodging lizards. And once, while fiddling with my camera, I nearly stumbled onto a pair of sea lions napping in the carpetweed!

I almost tripped over this duo of snoring sea lions.

Brian bonds with an iguana…

Even the fish in the tidepools would come say howdy…

The highlight of the trip for me, however, was the snorkeling. I’d never snorkeled before, and I’ll confess it scared me a little. But since I’m saying “yes” to life, I said yes to this. It was like drawing a winning lottery ticket.

Preparing for my first dive…

I splurged for an underwater camera. I’m glad I did.

Turns out I love to snorkel. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever experienced. When I put on the mask and look beneath the waves, I enter another world. An hour passes, and it seems like mere minutes. We snorkeled five times in my 72 hours on the boat. I could have done twice as much.

This friendly fellow came to say “hello”.

I was sad, however, to have missed the giant tortoises. They’re one of the main reasons I made this trip, and I was looking forward to getting up close and personal with them. It was not to be. On the morning I left the group, they continued on for tortoise-viewing. Before I left, though, they had a little fun with me; they found some tortoise footage on DVD and played it for me on the TV in the boat’s main cabin.

This is as close I got to the giant tortoises

Kicker Island, where we did a final round of snorkeling…

Alas, my time in the Galápagos was all to brief. Before I knew it, I was back in Quito. And once there, I was pining for home.

Quito is not without its charms, but the Galápagos are better…

Ecuador was marvelous, and I’m certain to return. Now, however, it’s back to Real Life. For the past week, I’ve been working hard on three different projects: my role at Fincon in three weeks, starting an online magazine, and (most importantly) writing an ebook about how to achieve financial independence.

Graffiti in Quito: “Smile…in spite of everything, life is beautiful!”

Now I need to decide where to go next. The 2014 travel catalogs have begun to arrive, and they’re filling my head with visions of far-away places. Should I go to Australia and New Zealand? Kenya and Tanzania? Madagascar? Thailand and Vietnam? Wherever I go, I want to take Kim with me. This is the second September in a row that I’ve gone on an adventure without her. I don’t like it. I want us to travel the world together!

Animals Feeding Other Animals

One of my goals at More Than Money is to incorporate content from my many defunct blogs, including my favorite, which was about animal intelligence. I haven’t been doing this and it’s a shame. There’s some great stuff out there that deserves a wider audience.

For instance, I just found this video of animals feeding other animals.

I have a friend who insists all animal behavior is based on pure instinct. He can argue that if he wants, but I see no instinctual reason for a crow to feed a cat and a dog, or for the cat and the dog to let the crow feed them. To me, there’s something more going on. What? I’m not sure. But I like it.

Animals in Peru

I’ve been home now for 72 hours. Three days ago, our plane from Lima landed in Portland, and ever since, I’ve been trying to adjust.

In a way, it’s good to be home. The trees are gorgeous this fall. I’ve enjoyed eating at some of my favorite haunts, and it’s been good to be back to the gym and back to Spanish lessons. At the same time, though, I miss Peru. I don’t want to be here — I want to be there. (Although perhaps while transplanting some of my favorite things about the Pacific Northwest…)

There’s still lots to write about my six-week trip. I have many photos and stories to share. Today, though, I want to talk about one small part of Peru that I miss most: the animals. One of my favorite differences between Peru and the United States is the way that people treat animals. (And children, but that’s another story.)

I’m an animal lover. I have a (near-dormant) blog about animal intelligence in which I’ve written some about my respect for the emotional and intellectual lives of the creatures around us. But one thing I regret about animals in the U.S. is how removed they are from our lives.

Pepe kisses a dog
Animals need love, too.

Yes, many people keep animals as pets. (I have five cats!) But often these pets are indoor-only, and when they go outside, they do so on a leash. Our animals don’t lead very natural lives, even on farms. Instead, it’s like we’ve created a pocket universe where they’re insulated from us and we’re insulated from them. I’m not sure why this is the case.

Market dog
The marketplace in Ollantaytambo is a fine place to eat and sleep. (Photo by Laura Bullock.)

In Peru, however, it’s different — at least outside of Lima. In Peru (and in Bolivia), animals are everywhere. Cats and dogs roam the streets, as do llamas and burros and more. In the countryside, the livestock is unfenced. It’s herded or allowed to roam free. The net effect is that people and animals have integrated each other into their lives.

Rae talks with Julisa (and her lamb, Laurita)
In rural areas, it’s not uncommon to have farm animals for pets. Julisa has Laurita, her lamb.

This means you might stay in a hotel where the cats wander freely from room-to-room, including the lobby and the kitchen. Or you might encounter llamas wandering in the streets. And everywhere you go, you find dogs of all shapes and sizes. These animals all interact with each other, and with the people, and with the traffic. It’s like a parallel world.

A hard day
Dogs go about their business, which often includes sleep, on the streets of Cusco.

I think the most prominent example of this is the way dogs roam the streets of Cusco (and other cities in the Sacred Valley). Dogs run free in Cusco, without leashes or collars. They respect the people and the traffic, and the people and traffic respect them. Everyone — man and beast — follows certain rules, and everyone is happy. It’s fun to see a dog (or a group of dogs) trotting along on some sort of canine agenda. It’s also fun to see the animals sitting or sleeping on the sidewalks and steps around town.

Patient Dog
Though the dogs roam the streets freely, they know and respect their limits.

I love seeing a society that allows the animals to create their own network of social interactions, one that lets them eat, sleep, and go about their business. To me, this is vastly preferable to the way we treat animals in the U.S.

Quechua woman outside Ollantaytambo
This old Quechua woman outside Ollantaytambo had a cat and a dog for companionship.

My wife and I have always allowed our cats to go inside and outside at will, which has drawn criticism from some friends and readers. We’re unfazed. The cats are clearly happier when they can roam freely, just as you would be too. Visiting Peru has only reinforced my belief that it’s healthiest for the animal live an unfettered life (or at least as unfettered as possible).

Cats in Parque Kennedy (Miraflores, Lima)
In Parque Kennedy (Miraflores, Lima), cats roam free.

I’ll leave you with a few more photos of the animals I met in Peru. And then I’ll walk home along empty streets — streets that could contain cats and dogs and horses and burros and lambs and llamas…but don’t.

Shy Pup
Puppies need to learn the rules and sometimes are wary of strangers.

Ferry Pup
People take their dogs with them everywhere — here on a ferry in Bolivia.

Black kitten
Cats aren’t as common as dogs (or not as visible, anyhow), but they’re around.

Bird dog
This old dog felt it was his duty to keep Aguas Calientes safe from pigeons.

Camp dogs
Even in rural areas, dogs are common — especially where there’s food. (Photo by Laura Bullock.)

Hotel cat
This cat (and his brother) roamed freely at our hotel in Ollantaytambo. Even into the kitchen.

A Boy and his dog (Urubamba)
Most homes seem to have at least one dog and sometimes several.

Exploring Lima, Peru: The Cats of Miraflores

With just one day to explore Lima, there’s no hope to see everything. I don’t even try. I spend the first part of the day around Plaza de Armas with a local guide and then return to the hotel in Miraflores. I’ll explore more of Lima at the end of my trip.

After a nap, I put on my jacket and head outside to explore Miraflores. I’m actually looking for dinner — and probably at a KFC. But instead of eating, I walk.

Note: KFC is popular here. More popular even than in the United States. (Or at least more popular than in Portland.) It seems like there’s a KFC on every corner, and there are KFC billboards all over the place.

I walk down past the taxistand where the minivans packed with people stop to pick up more passengers. (As they stop, a man leans out the door — or walks alongside the van — announcing destinations and asking people to climb aboard.)

I walk past Iglesia de la Virgen Milagrosa (the Church of the Miraculous Virgin) and see that folks are flocking to the doors. I go inside too. Because I know little of Catholicism, I can’t tell if it’s the start or the end of Mass — or if it’s Mass at all — but I stand for five or ten minutes to listen. I’m not at all religious, but I’m moved by the prayer and the song, the strange familiarity of the ritual. I look at the people in the pews and, for a moment, I wish I could trade places with them.

Instead, I leave. I walk toward Kennedy Park to see the cats. Miraflores apparently has a cat problem. People dump their unwanted animals here, and they roam the streets begging for food. As a Crazy Cat Man, this makes me happy. But the local government doesn’t like it.

No cats allowed!

I smile at the teenage girls who stroll past. They’re talking and laughing and having a good time. One girl in braces is struggling to ride her skateboard on the cobblestone sidewalk. And there’s un niño, a boy about three years old who is chasing one of the cats into the street. (There’s no traffic here; it’s like a pedestrian mall.)

At the park, I sit on a bench and write. Just like I used to! It’s been too long since I’ve done this: sitting still, watching the details of life as it flows around me, writing it all down. I’ve been too busy, which is a lousy excuse. Because this! This is what I love.

Cats in Parque Kennedy (Miraflores, Lima)

And so I spend half an hour watching the people. And the cats. And the people with the cats. The city may not want the cats here, but it’s clear that the people do. They smile when they see them. Every few minutes, somebody stops to call to them. Sometimes one or two cats come closer. They want food, I think, but they settle for being patted and petted. (One cat tries to enter the church but is quickly rebuked.)

There are cats on benches. There are cats on the lawn. There are cats on the sidewalk, and there are cats standing still as stone statues in the middle of the flower beds.

I know this isn’t all of Lima. In fact, it’s completely unrepresentative of the city as a whole. But in this moment, in this place, I love the town.

As I’m preparing to leave, a little tortoise-shell cat comes up to me and meows. I pet her and she rubs her face against my hand. She talks to me. When I stop petting her, she stands on her hind legs and paw-paws me, asking for more.

For a moment, this feels like home.